Edmund White: Historical Voices

Table of Contents

Spring / Summer 04


Edmund White: Historical Voices
by Sherri Smith

The 2003-2004 Writers at Rutgers series closed on an exuberant note as Edmund White, accomplished novelist, cultural critic, and biographer, read from his new work, Fanny: A Fiction. With his expressive voice, Mr. White took a captivated audience back to early nineteenth-century America.

Fanny, Mr. White’s first historical novel, records the life and times of Frances Wright, an early feminist and a scandalous public figure in the 1820s and 1830s. Wright played mistress to the much older General Lafayette, became a fierce abolitionist, and founded a utopian community. This mock-biography is supposedly written by Wright’s contemporary and friend Frances Trollope. In reality, Trollope had traveled to the United States intending to join Wright’s community. When that plan failed, Trollope earned fame for herself by publishing a critique of American manners back in England. Mr. White’s novel adopts her snobbish tone while giving us enough information to let us gather the “real” story of her relationship with Fanny.

The new novel is a departure from the usual themes of Mr. White’s published work, which since the early seventies has focused on depicting the lives of gay men in both fiction and nonfiction. In introducing the reading, Professor Michael Warner, Rutgers English faculty member and noted scholar of both nineteenth-century American literature and queer theory, commented that the current mainstream visibility of gay culture may make Mr. White’s work seem less daring than when it was first published, when there were very few positive portrayals of gayness to be found.

Indeed, Mr. White has written that his teenage years were spent looking “desperately for things to read that might excuse me or assure me I wasn’t the only one, that might confirm an identity I was unhappily piecing together.” Faced with a body of literature with only unfavorable images of homosexuality, Mr. White went on to build a career around filling that gap. His work provides an honest and unapologetic look at gay lives and gay communities, and for many years was the first exposure many straight readers had to the closeted or hidden world around them. As Professor Warner said in his introduction, Edmund White’s books have helped to shape the open discussion as it now exists.

Although he is not afraid of the title “gay writer,” Mr. White might be better called a “writer’s writer.” He has authored seventeen books over three decades, including novels, autobiographies, biographies, stories, travelogues, and collections of essays. He is clearly a writer who understands the art: his biography of author Jean Genet won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and his short biography Marcel Proust is an excellent introduction to the great French master of autobiography, and a fascinating book in itself.

Mr. White is currently mentoring a new generation of writers as Director of the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University. Audience members got a taste of his teaching style as he answered several questions about the creative process, talking about his enjoyment of research as a complement to the imagination, his fondness for the historical figures he uses as characters, and his experience of having had his early books rejected by publishers because the subject matter was too controversial.

He also discussed his development as a writer, describing how he wrote incessantly as an adolescent and finished his first novel when he was fifteen, a work he now jokingly calls “mindless and silly.” According to Mr. White, it took him years to make an important distinction: “At first, all of my writing was just about me and my struggles, too intensely personal. It wasn’t until I realized I should do something more artistic, something reaching beyond my own experience, that I began writing books that anyone else might want to read.” As the enthusiastic reception at Rutgers proved, he has certainly succeeded.

Related Links

The Writers at Rutgers Series including the schedule of writers for 2004-2005

Edmund White’s website

Rutgers University home page